It seems that a lot of misunderstanding of the Bible comes from scripture being taken out of context. What are some other rules or guidelines for taking a literal or first interpretation (like 'Jesus wept'), or figurative or second interpretation (like most of Revelations)?
An important rule is "be humble." Recognize that your interpretation is likely to be wrong and certain to be incomplete. Be open to letting Holy Scripture change you.
A related rule is to study and interpret Holy Scripture in the company of others. You can gather in the flesh, and you can study in the company of scholars by reading their books.
Be as aware as you can of your own prejudices and spiritual blind spots as you engage with scripture.
Avoid using short "proof texts" and single translations. The more important the conclusion you draw from Holy Scripture, the broader the textual support you should enlist for your conclusion. Sometimes the one word that's most important to you doesn't mean precisely what you hope it means.
Let scripture fill you with joy.
Books can and have been written on this subject. Different traditions have different ways of interpreting the Bible.
- The Catholic approach is that the Church interprets the Bible. Biblical interpretation requires careful study, deep knowledge, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. An average Christian is unlikely to have all of these, and can get themselves in real trouble by applying what they think the Bible means.
- The Evangelical Protestant approach is that the Bible stands entirely on its own and that every individual Christian is responsible for interpreting it themselves - typically with the guidance of books, pastors and fellow-Christians, but with nobody else's interpretation being necessarily better than yours.
- The approach of the Orthodox churches, and a number of Anabaptist groups, is that the church interprets scriptures in community. This is different from the Catholic approach, where the formal heirarchy of the church does the interpretation: in this approach groups of Christians gather together to interpret scripture to and for each other, submitting also to groups of those groups.
If you have Protestant leanings, and wanting to do your own interpretation (in a group or alone) there are whole classes of books written about this, collectively called "Introductions" (a misleading term - they are not in any way basic or primers). I recommend my personal favourite: "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth"
It's easy to take things out of context when the words that you use have different meanings then when they WERE first used. Not only has the Bible been translated into the English language, there has been thousands of years since the words were first used.
Hypothetically, if we spoke fluent Greek and Hebrew today we still wouldn't have the exact meaning of the words used during Biblical times. For example, the definition of Love in the English language today has one meaning. But the Greek's had four different definitions of that word.
In order to understand the context of which the passages were written in, you need to use the Scripture to define the Scripture. Thus start your Biblical studies by choosing a single word at a time and then finding all of the scripture that mentions that word. This way you'll begin to redefine your own meanings of the words with the definition formed from scripture.
Empty your presumptions. You cannot accept anything that the Bible has to say if you're not willing to first loosen your own foothold on your beliefs. Most people are not willing to adjust their traditions when reading the Bible, they simple read the Bible and reinforce their own presumptions. Ignoring completely the verses that contradict their personal beliefs.
If the Bible is true, as I believe that it is, then you cannot and will not understand the Scripture if you are not reborn. Thus, the reason that there are so many interpretations. In order to have the scripture opened up to you, you must first go to God in prayer and ask to be granted repentance. If you believe in Jesus then you will repent and accept Him as your Lord.
2 Timothy 2:25 (NIV) Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,
Acts 5:32 (NIV) We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When interpreting the scriptures you must be sure to have all the facts that are available to ensure you understand what it is you are reading. The approach that you take when studying your bible is what will shape your understanding, so the best thing you can do is ensure your approach to your own bible studying is as effective as possible.
Here are the steps I take when I read the bible I:
Firstly take a few moments to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to be present with me and when I have managed to calm myself and can 'feel' the presence of the Holy Spirit I will then begin to read.
Secondly, and very importantly, I try and read a section entirely from beginning to end, rather than taking verses on their own because that is a sure way of taking a verse out of context too.
Thirdly, I will then try to imagine what the scripture would have meant to the people of the day and do a bit of research around that to be sure I have a good idea of the cultural significances and try to make myself aware of any other things which may be relevant through that research. Usually with a concordance, Strong's for example to be sure of the important words that have been translated in the text I am reading.
Fourthly, I will then try to understand how this can be relevant to me and my society today in modern times and then how it can be applied.
Finally, I would try to read in a few versions NKJV, ESV, AMP, NASB and others and maybe even the Message to be sure that I am not being confused. All in all I try to engage my spiritual and intellectual self and by inviting the Holy Spirit to be there to aid me in my learning.
Almost forgot, it is best to read a translation not an interpretation of the scriptures; also share what you read with other people to cross examine your understandings of the text. This will help you interpret the messages contained in the bible and how to apply them to your life more effectively.